First look at Luton DART: We take a ride on the shuttle that promises to get passengers to Luton Airport in under three minutes

Hold on tight – the Luton DART is almost ready to welcome passengers
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The last time I went to Luton Airport I used the shuttle bus to get from the Parkway station. I remember lugging my overpacked suitcase onto the bus and sitting onboard for 10 minutes before rushing into the departures entrance.

Thanks to the Luton DART – the Direct Air-Rail Train – passengers can enjoy just a third of the journey time to the airport. But this comes at double the price of a single fare on the shuttle bus.

Despite being delayed by two years and being nearly £75 million over its initial cost, the Luton DART is now being finalised to begin to take passengers to the airport. From March 10, passengers will be invited to journey from the Parkway station to the airport – getting there in under three minutes.

The DART will soon carry passengers to and from the Luton terminalsThe DART will soon carry passengers to and from the Luton terminals
The DART will soon carry passengers to and from the Luton terminals

Those pesky, weaving escalators leading down to the bus can be waved goodbye as the DART has direct access from platform one and also via a pedestrian entrance. Inside the station, it is modern and open, and almost space-like. The architecture is futuristic with shades of gold and greys and clever use of lighting.

The onboard experience

The streamlined shuttle has seating and ample space for luggage. Since it is driverless, there is more seating at each end for those wanting to take in some views as the train makes its way alongside the runway. Compared to the similar trains at Gatwick and Heathrow, the DART is clean, as expected given it hasn’t officially opened yet, but looks like a small 21st-century London Underground carriage.

While from afar the shuttles look to be moving fairly slowly, they picked up some speed and those blue handrails came in handy as I needed to hold on tight. From one station to another in two minutes and 39 seconds, the DART can reach speeds of 50 kilometres per hour – around 31 miles per hour.

The view of the trackThe view of the track
The view of the track

Linsey Sweet, the DART’s general manager said: “The main benefit is the speed of the journey and the connection to the airport. You’re connected straight from the train seamlessly to the airport.”

I noticed how quiet the train was. No gas-guzzling engine means no chugging along the track, quite the opposite. The shuttle glided through the inside portion of the track which reminded me of an indoor rollercoaster – especially through the huge window. Also to reduce noise, the all-electric shuttle moves via an underneath cable and rubber wheels.

A Luton woman can be heard on the speakers, saying: “Please hold onto the rails.” The local lady was selected after a town-wide competition looking for the voice of the DART.

The track has a big swooping metal feature which lights up at night, this will prove to be a spectacle for those weary travellers onboard when the DART operates its 24/7 service.

How accessible is it?

The stations have four lifts as well as escalators. There are textured ground surfaces to assist those who are visually impaired.

No lifting is needed for wheelchairs or buggies to board as the platform is all one-level. This is also useful if you are carting your goodies in your suitcase from duty-free. From the airport station to departures, it is about a minute’s walk or less.

Wearing two layers in four-degree weather, I was cold waiting for my train to pull in. Since it is an outdoor station, I would advise any passengers to take a jacket, even if they are jetting off for some winter sun. Thankfully, once you are inside the shuttle, you’ll soon warm up with the onboard heating.

Graham Olver, CEO of Luton Rising explained that the regenerative braking on the trains means that heat created from travelling is used inside the shuttle, with any excess sent to National Grid. It’s clear that sustainability is at the heart of this project even down to the smart escalators which sense when people are approaching them.

Is it worth the ticket price?

Down to the all-important price: people getting a train to Luton Airport will have the DART ticket included. But this is not for the parkway – those who buy a ticket to the parkway will need to purchase a ticket for the shuttle, as they would the bus.

Compared to the bus, the DART is fairly pricey, in my opinion, at £4.90 each way. Luton residents can get these for half-price by scanning a QR code at the station. Passengers with a disability and those holding a bus pass can travel for free. As can carers and children under five. Children aged five to 15 get half off. To be entitled to the concessionary charges, people need to register here at least 48 hours prior to travelling.

I think for the ease of travel, especially with lots of baggage, I could justify paying it if it wasn’t included with my train ticket. After hours of travelling, I would get on the DART without hesitation if I knew I could potentially get to the train station in less than three minutes.